4 October 2010 | SamuraiNixon
Death only means there is a hole in my body
Early in John Woo's career as a director in Hong Kong, he had the auspiciousness to direct three of the seven fortunes in Yuen Biao, Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung in their first movie together Hand of Death (1976: Chinese Title literally means Shaolin Gate) though much was not made of this at the time because they were all struggling to make a career. They have yet to work together again in such a capacity though they have said nothing but kind words about each other since. An interesting point, in hindsight, is that the star of the film is none of the three (it is hard to spot Yuen Biao as his role is of a stunt double and bit actor) but Korean export and Tae Kwon Do expert Dorian Tan Tao-Liang.
Dorian Tan Tao-Liang stars as Yun Fei a Shaolin trained fighter looking to find Zhang Yi (John Woo) and escort him through White Stone town and across the White River. Zhang holds a map of all Qing bases in the Guangdong and Guangxi provinces in southeast China. He can get a hold of Zhang by contacting pupil Chiu Guo. However, when he is found, he has already been arrested and ready to be beheaded by the Manchus led by a traitor of the Shaolin Shih Xiaofeng (ubiquitous bad guy James Tien: Fearless Hyena, Winners and Sinners) who has taught himself White Crane Soul Chaser Style (he is the titular Hand of Death). Even though his Kung Fu is superior, he has the additional help of Eight Bodyguards with different styles and two top ranking guards in Smiling Fox and Du Ching (Sammo Hung who also does the stunt coordination) whose overbite is quite preposterous and resembles a "hopping vampire" though he is trained in tiger and crane styles.
Yun Fei gets the assistance of a woodcutter Tan, who helped him earlier to get past a roadblock and dispose of a body (a true friend helps you get rid of a corpse). Tan's elder brother was killed by Shih's men. Tan also obtains the help of "The Wanderer" (Yeung Wai) an expert swordsman who accidentally killed a prostitute he was in love with also because of Shih and would have given up his sword for good if it was not for Yun. These men will help Zhang Yi get across the river to get the plans to help once and for all defeat the Qing Empire and restore the Ming Dynasty (the plot of the Qing Dynasty as bad guys is one of the staples of Hong Kong martial art movies like Heroes Two, Royal Tramp and Iron Monkey).
Many will have bought, borrowed or rented this movie because of the presence of Jackie Chan. He originally was only supposed to have a stunt man role (helped hired onto the film by his "big brother" Sammo Hung) but as John Woo found one of the Korean actors lacking in the physical department, he replaced his part with Jackie Chan and expanded his role according to an interview with Lee Server in "Asian Pop Cinema" he stated he "changed the whole script to focus more on him and show his great skill." though there might be some fraudulent hindsight with that statement. Jackie originally had been the stunt coordinator for Woo's first film Young Dragons (1975) that came out a year earlier. Jackie did get hurt on the film, getting knocked unconscious after being pulled by a cable while being kicked by Dorian Tan and landing and hitting his head on a rock (though this would not be as bad as his most famous accident in Operation Condor where he almost lost his life).
Others might watch this because it belongs in the oeuvre of John Woo. It is still very early in his career (his fourth film in two years of being a director), but you can see traces of his talent. There are some nice hand-held scenes, a little use of slow motion and hints of "heroic bloodshed" elements (though this would come to blossom in Last Hurrah for Chivalry (1979)) like an early scene when Jackie Chan and Dorian Tan first meet which seemed to hint a certain homoerotism (or else those were some of the most strange smiles I have ever seen), but then failed to capitalize on it later in the film.
Overall, this is a decent, yet unspectacular film. The direction is solid, yet it does not feel like a John Woo directed movie. The scenery of the Korean hillsides is absolutely beautiful and helps makes this movie easier to watch. The story is mediocre, but not too many glaring holes in the story. The Kung Fu ability is give or take. The kicking of Dorian Tan is beautiful to behold, his punching ability and forms are good but not great. Jackie Chan is also awesome with his fighting and you get to see him use a spear the Little Eagle God Lance as it is called in the film (which that and the staff are the traditional weapons that Jackie is best with). The highlight fight scenes of the movie are when Jackie fights several of the Eight Bodyguards and later when Dorian fights Sammo. The latter is especially impressive because of Sammo's willingness to hurt his body to make Tan look good. James Tien is not much of a martial artist, though his acting if fine as he is the consummate Hong Kong bad guy, so his hand-to-hand combat scenes are a bit pedantic though he has one scene wielding a sword that was good.